The Great Jesus debate. Did he exist at all - and if he did, what reasons do we have to believe he was divine?

(316 Posts)
EllieArroway Tue 05-Mar-13 13:51:59

Madhairday and I have been plotting behind the scenes to have this debate as we think it will be interesting, both for us and for others.

Mad is a Christian & I am an atheist. I will leave it entirely up to her to present her case.

Mine is:

It's impossible to conclude that Jesus actually existed at all given that there's simply no evidence to work with. I am aware that the majority (although not all) of scholars, both secular & religious, have concluded that he did exist, but this is for inferential reasons not evidential ones, so the issue is nowhere near as cut and dried as many people suppose.

While I am generally happy to accept that there was some man, probably called Yeshua/Joshua/Jesus, who lived in the Galilean region at the beginning of the 1st century & who may have died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans - I don't feel that this is particularly significant or justifies anyone in believing that he was divine.

I also believe that nearly all of the "Jesus story" - the nativity, the miracles, the resurrection etc is complete myth and never happened at all.

I have continually pointed out on many threads that "There's no evidence that Jesus existed" and been called ignorant and so forth. So, this is my opportunity to make my case and demonstrate that this is, in fact, a correct statement.

So, I'm kicking of this (hopefully) interesting discussion with:

There is no evidence that Jesus the man existed. Discuss wink

(By the way, this is an open discussion for anyone to join in, ask questions, make points etc, it's not just for Mad and I).

ANother one who has found it interesting here, even though I haven't read any of the books and have bugger all knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin. No one's come up with any convincing evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ, of course, but I didn't expect them to, any more than I'd expect anyone to turn up evidence of Odin, Janus or Freya, despite the fact that they have days of the week named after them.

MooncupGoddess Fri 15-Mar-13 21:58:42

Damn, I was looking forward to the gospels discussion.

crescentmoon Fri 15-Mar-13 23:46:59

iv really enjoyed this thread too. It doesn't make any difference to my belief and reverence of Jesus but I enjoyed learning the different opinions on the collection and compilation of the New Testament. And I get fascinated by the little tidbits about what life was like in that part of the world then and the stories of the early Christians. I had no idea about Greek anything I thought it was all about the Jews and the Romans. And mention of sabian lady that was cool who were the sabians? Ahh il just google in the morning!

cloutiedumpling Sat 16-Mar-13 11:31:01

I'm another one that has been lurking and finds this thread interesting. I haven't been posting because I've not studied the subject. I think it would be good if the debate continued.

HolofernesesHead Sat 16-Mar-13 14:50:01

I'd be up for carrying on, but I understand if Ellie's had enough. I have genuinely learnt new things from this thread and enjoyed it, so thanks everyone! smile

backonlybriefly99 Sun 17-Mar-13 13:40:15

It's been years since I was a regular poster, but people send me links now and then to threads like this because they know of my special interest.

So this was a good thread and I wanted to say thanks on behalf of myself and the other lurkers. It wouldn't have worked without several believers speaking for their side.

Ellie, If you were feeling disappointed/disheartened then don't be. The point of a court case is not to convince the defence, but the jury. Many of the jury in this case will have been thinking "but I thought the Romans had his birth records from the census and anyway didn't his four best friends write the gospels about him in the weeks after he died?".

I know I was led to believe that and other things when I was young. I remember being amazed when I found out how much I'd been lied to. In fairness many of those people sincerely believed there was evidence. They were just repeating what they had been taught.

As you said in a different context, if there had been one bit of real evidence for Jesus existing you'd have had people queuing up to post it. People reading the thread can make up their minds from that.

The more people read the bible the more it falls apart. So everyone grab a bible and start reading. From the beginning the first time. You can jump around later, but don't let anyone suggest some 'safe' passages for you to read. Always look where people don't want you to.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Trust me, it's a good read. In (3) he creates light and then in (16) he makes the sun smile

niminypiminy Sun 17-Mar-13 18:18:51

I agree Genesis is a good read smile, if people want to go an read it that's great. I certainly wouldn't think of it as something I wouldn't want people to look at. But then, I don't think of it as one of the more challenging books of the Bible. Judges, perhaps. Or Jeremiah, that's got some very tough stuff in it. But if people want to read and talk about the Bible that's fine with me (and would like to join in! smile).

MadHairDay Sun 17-Mar-13 19:23:02

With you on that one niminy! Job, perhaps? Ezekiel?

I'd also be happy to carry on, if anyone wants to...would be good to talk about the gospels and other NT writings. Maybe we got rather bogged down in Josephus.

'The more people read the bible the more it falls apart.' - not in my experience. Quite the opposite. It comes together beautifully, inconsistencies, cultural contexts, many genres and all.

townbuiltonahill Sun 17-Mar-13 22:03:12

..... I always seem to come in on these after the curtain has fallen, while they're cleaning up the ice-cream cartons after the main event.

But, truth be told, like some lurkers I suspect, I have found this thread rather disturbing.

Ellie has however been the irritant 'grit in the oyster' which stimulated the production of the 'pearl of great price' by Holo and others.

Talking to some Uni friends last weekend, they pointed me to this very useful read published in 2012. Paul Barnett is a retired Bishop of North Sydney and a historian.

I have just finished it, and found it accessible and helpful, giving the references without getting as heavy as this thread has been. He writes specifically to address the New Atheist issues which seem to be the basis of Ellie's approach, and cross-references to books and comments by the 'four horsemen' of the recent atheist movement.

I come from it renewed and stabilised in my faith, but jolted out of complacency. Well done, Mad.

Romans 8:28 & Genesis 50:20

backonlybriefly99 Tue 19-Mar-13 09:16:39

Niminypiminy, I just popped back because you misunderstood what I said there. When I said "So everyone grab a bible and start reading. From the beginning the first time." I was suggesting that reading the whole bible was a good idea - all of it. The whole old testament and the whole new testament.

Because frequently if you go to read the bible people will suggest you read certain parts of it, certain books or certain verses. There are reading lists/plans available. They will even suggest you read books by Christians which will tell you what the bible says without you needing to waste time looking yourself.

So I don't think people should read just Genesis, Judges Or Jeremiah to begin with, but the whole thing.

As an atheist I like to encourage everyone to read the whole bible from cover to cover at least once before going back and examining the bits they found interesting.

It takes a while but if it's the word of god then surely it's worth the effort and can only strengthen faith.

And in case it is not you might want to keep a notebook handy because you could find yourself thinking "Hang on a minute... he said what?"

niminypiminy Tue 19-Mar-13 09:33:14

I agree, reading the whole Bible is a good idea. I know, because I did it, cover to cover. And it did strengthen my faith to do it, and it did leave me with lots of questions. Doubt and faith are married together; it is faith and certainty that cannot live in the same house.

My profession is teaching literature. I frequently find that when people read books written a long time ago without any background knowledge, and without any guidance, they read naively and harbour many misconceptions. Reading the Bible is one thing, but understanding it is another. So I would encourage atheists to read the Bible, by all means, but do not reject reading about the Bible either, because all learning is valuable (even, perhaps especially, as I frequently tell my students, learning that we do not agree with).

niminypiminy Sun 14-Apr-13 07:32:26

Bumping this so that people who might be interested can more easily have a look.

EllieArroway Sat 20-Apr-13 09:07:50

Bumping.

Hello all - if you're coming back.....*Mad*, Holo & Niminy smile

Have just read through the thread to familiarise myself.

Backonlybriefy says: Ellie, If you were feeling disappointed/disheartened then don't be. The point of a court case is not to convince the defence, but the jury. Many of the jury in this case will have been thinking "but I thought the Romans had his birth records from the census and anyway didn't his four best friends write the gospels about him in the weeks after he died?"

I know I was led to believe that and other things when I was young. I remember being amazed when I found out how much I'd been lied to. In fairness many of those people sincerely believed there was evidence. They were just repeating what they had been taught

As you said in a different context, if there had been one bit of real evidence for Jesus existing you'd have had people queuing up to post it. People reading the thread can make up their minds from that

Exactly! I cannot see a single place anywhere on this thread where a single thing I've said has been contradicted. Not anywhere. Different interpretations, indeed - contradictions? Not a single one.

It's all very well to claim to have read books that contradict me, but quote them then. "Ellie's wrong, but I'm not going to say why" does not endear me to anyone.

Hope you'll stay on the thread, Back - I could do with a wingman/woman wink.

So, where were we then........Paul?

Ah, dear, clueless Paul wink.

Tell me how he proves Jesus, people.

My study of the bible took place so long ago I'd be hard pressed to prove that that ever happened smile

Since the internet hadn't been invented I had to mostly use the bible to disprove the bible. It's all a bit fuzzy now, but I'll jump in where I can.

I find a good place to look for evidence is in what the opposing side doesn't say. Your own side might invent supporting evidence out of wishful thinking, but you can be sure that if the other side can't produce something that would support them then it doesn't exist.

It's reasonable to ask why there isn't clear evidence. We're supposed to believe that Jesus intended to spread the word. He should in that case have made it possible for us to tell which words were true and that he was ever here.

If you accidentally posted say your phone number on the net there'd be nothing you could do to take it back. However if you quickly posted 1000s of false phone numbers that would be just as effective as deleting the information. No one could tell which was genuine. That is now the case with Christianity (and religion in general). Just about every variation exists and no way to distinguish fact from fiction or indeed fiction from fiction.

HolofernesesHead Sat 20-Apr-13 19:18:27

Hello smile Good to see this continuing! I am not going to comment right now though as I'm dealing with some difficult RL stuff at the moment which is using up all of my brain space (and then some!) Hopefully I'll have something more constructive / persuasive / interesting to set soon though!

WhenSheWasBadSheWasHopeful Sun 21-Apr-13 14:21:32

Just read the whole thread and it is facinating. Will just let you know I am an atheist, quite interested in religion but have no theological knowledge at all. so there is a good chance I'll come accross as incredibly poorly educated / informed

I just wanted to say my understanding prior to this debate was that Jesus the man did exist and there was good historical evidence for this. This thread has really opened my eyes to just how poor this evidence actually is.

Even if I was to accept the evidence that Jesus did exist (non gospel sources) all it would lead me to conclude was that the man Jesus was pretty unremarkable and didn't make much of an impression at the time. sorry if that sounds really rude it's just my take on the thread

EllieArroway Sun 21-Apr-13 14:43:16

This thread has really opened my eyes to just how poor this evidence actually is

I think I love you, Head grin

Hopefully Mad will be back anon. She's sometimes quite unwell, so when she's up to it hopefully we can entice her back. I am dying to get to grips with Paul.

WhenSheWasBadSheWasHopeful Sun 21-Apr-13 15:08:25

I'll be lurking away. Might pop the odd post in just to let everyone know I'm still interested. smile

madhairday Mon 22-Apr-13 17:14:18

Sorry I haven't been around. RL stuff is going bonkers and poorly with chest infection. Can't really get my head in this today....but I can't wait to smile

madhairday Tue 23-Apr-13 13:39:41

Should we talk about Paul or the gospels first? Can't remember exactly what we've covered now.

I guess Paul is important to discuss because his were the earliest Christian writings, written 20 years or so after the death/resurrection of Jesus.

Obviously, much of Paul's writings are based on what he describes as revelation from God, so a lot of his work cannot be useful in a historical sense. However, he includes some insight into very early Christian practise, ceremony and belief, and it is in this that the historical use is, I think - 1 Cor 15, et al. Think we did mention some of this upthread? I'll have a look.

There's also the whole area of whether Paul 'changed' the message, whether he believed Jesus to be the messiah, etc etc. I believe he did have a high Christology.

Whether you'd think his references to early Christian practise of any use in 'proving' either the historicity of Jesus or the historical Jesus is another question. I suspect you'd write it off in similar terms to the way you treat Pliny et al - yes it may refer to practices, but how could that be cited as proof of existence?

I think the earliness of the writing and the practises to which it refers cannot be thrown out with the bathwater here. The creeds go back to within a few years of the events, practised by eyewitnesses to the events. It's difficult to imagine how these things would come to be at that time if they were not based around those events. They cannot be comparable to mystery religions, where vague legend was formed over time and practises remained secret and changing. There were concrete communities forming and spreading from immediately after the time Jesus died and was resurrected. Paul's descriptions of them, written before Luke-Acts, can be said to hold historical value, although I wouldn't argue that they are more valuable than the gospels and acts, especially Luke's writings as a historian himself.

EllieArroway Wed 24-Apr-13 11:28:39

Hello Mad. How's the chest infection? I do worry about you a little bit when I notice you're not on the boards that much smile

OK. Paul.

Well....hmmmm.

I suspect you'd write it off in similar terms to the way you treat Pliny et al

This is a trifle unfair I think because you're not taking into account that this is a discussion about historical evidence and on this basis, I have no option but to write off a source that's writing 100 years after the events and doesn't tell us anything about Jesus anyway - only Christians.

Pliny, Tacitus and Josephus merely confirm the existence of early Christians - nothing that we don't already know from Paul. If this was a debate about whether early Christians existed, then sure - I'd accept them as sources. But it's not.

And if we then go on to say.....well, if early Christians existed, then Jesus logically must have done too, then we're stuck in the unfortunate position of having to believe that Mithras, Ra & Zeus must have existed, since their followers prove it too. Clearly, neither of us follows that logic for any other god, so why should we for Jesus?

(Tacitus, incidentally, references an event that doesn't hold up historically. There was a fire in Rome, but almost certainly not caused by Nero. So, the idea that Nero deliberately deflected blame from himself by blaming Christians is immediately shaky - throwing the whole source into doubt).

The problem with Paul is not really what he does say, but more what he doesn't. Yes, he's our earliest source and SHOULD tell us an awful lot, but quite remarkably fails to.

The one thing that would make Christianity unique from all other cults and religions of the time was that Jesus lived and died as a man on Earth. This is the single most important fact about him - and everything Christianity stands for follows from it. He lived as a man, sacrificed his life and took the worlds sins upon his shoulders. This is utterly fundamental to Christianity, which means that the resurrection is too.

So where is a) the evidence that Paul was passing on this information to early Christians and b) the evidence that they were responding to it?

Human beings have been remarkably consistent in their behaviour over the years. If something is supposed to have happened in a particular place, you go and visit that place. (Look at Lourdes, look at Graceland, look at anywhere actually). This complete and total lack of apparent interest in seeing the stable Jesus was born in, the tomb that was found to be empty, the site of the crucifixion, tracking down disciples and family members to talk to is hard to explain. Where is the reverence for holy places?

Nowhere, absolutely nowhere, in the vast historical record of the times do we get the faintest indication that Christians were undertaking pilgrimages or journeying to Nazareth or Bethlehem because of Jesus. It's conceivable that, at this point, people who'd known an earthly Jesus would have still been alive - was anyone not wanting to talk to them?

When Pliny the Elder died (not regarded by anyone as divine, merely a great thinker) his nephew (the aforementioned Pliny the Younger) received a mammoth amount of letters wanting to know all about him, what he said or thought about stuff and so on. Interested people wanted to communicate with those who had known him, visit his home town, hear about the circumstances of his death and so on.

Is there any evidence that this kind of interest was being displayed in, not just a great thinker, a divine being? God himself? No. Not a sausage. To this day, we're not even clear where Nazareth actually was - or the tomb, or the site of the crucifixion. Early Christians should have sorted that out for us by establishing it as a holy site. They didn't. Why ever not?

So, it's not really enough to say, "Well, Paul didn't need to talk about that stuff in his letters" or "He did, but we've lost the letters" because we have no evidence from the actions or response of others that he was passing on this kind of information at all. And if he wasn't - why not? It's the most important fact about Jesus there is.

Then when we look closely at what Paul actually said, it doesn't look as if he thinks Jesus existed as a man at all. He seems to have considered that the few facts he does pass on (the crucifixion and resurrection) happened in a higher plane of existence altogether - which would be 100% typical of how people generally did regard events in the lives of their gods. They believed (virtually all of them) that there were various levels of existence, and Earth was just one.

That's the Paul problem for me smile

HolofernesesHead Thu 25-Apr-13 09:36:20

Hello all. Sorry I've not been on this thread much - life is a bit confused at the moment.

Ellie, I always find your posts thought-provoking - you send me off down trains of thought that are really interesting! In your last post, the train of thought that you sent me off down is to do with early Christian pilgrimage - did the earliest Christians go on pilgrimage to the places in the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life, were they encouraged to do so, or did they continue with the traditional Jewish pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the major festivals? Now you might think this is a prime example of my picking up on something very minor that is not going to solve the problem of the historical Jesus, but to me it's an interesting question that deserves to be thought about properly. So here goes...

The focus of pilgrimage for Jewish people was, of course, the temple in Jerusalem, until it was destroyed in 70CE. There were other places of journeying for spiritual growth too. By that time there was nothing like a clear-cut distinction between Jews and Christians - it was more that some Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and others (the majority) didn't believe this. Paul's earliest letter, Galatians, (in all historical probability) is centred on the question of whether believing in Jesus necessarily means circumcision (he says no). The first letter he writes to the church at Corinth is all about how to live as a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles in one Christian church.

So these are very much the live issues in the period for Christians between the death of Jesus and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Paul never recommends going on pilgrimage, either to Jerusalem or anywhere else - Paul's letters are all about going out into all the world with the message that God is alive in all places and in all peoples - he calls himself the 'apostle to the Gentiles' (the one sent to the Gentiles). So maybe saying 'no, you don't have to be circumcised, but by the way, you must go to Jerusalem for Tabernacles' might have muddied the waters of the message.

However, having said this, if Christians in the first centuty went on pilgriamge anywhere, it was to established Jewish pilgriamge sites (numerous in Asia Minor). It wasn't until the late second century that specifically Christian pilgrimage sites started to crop up; these were the places where Christians had been martyred. Rome became a place to which Christians travelled, by the second century. Christian pilgrimage became much more widespread after 312CE, when it was promoted and encouraged by Constantine and his mother.

So in the early Christian period, pilgrimage wasn't much of a priority. Why might this be?....well, firstly, pilgrimage was a Jewish practice and if Christians took part in it, they did so as Jews or as 'God-fearers' (Gentiles who were favourably disposed towards Jewish practices). Secondly, in Paul and in the Gospels, there's a huge emphasis on Jesus' body as the new Temple that makes the Jerusalem temple obsolete (I could say much more about this). Paul says to the Corintians, every time you meet togeher to break bread and drink wine (i.e. practices taken from Passover, which very quickly became Christianised), the body and blood of Jesus are present among you - Jesus himself is present among you. You are 'in Christ' already. So how can travelling to a building or a place bring you closer to God, when you are in Christ already, when Jesus is present among you every time you gather together to worship? Churches met in homes at this time, so there was very little, if any, reverence for buidings as the place of encounter with God. Rather, all the world, every Christian community in every place, Jewish, Gentile or mixed, was its own place of meeting with Jesus.

So, you might say that this is a spin on things - well, if so, it's very well anchored in the Bible and in early Christian scholarship and I'm happy to defend it - but I hope it might give you an insight into the thought-world of Christians in the first century, and an insight into why some issues mattered more than others. I'm quite a fan of pilgrimage, personally - I've been on two in the last year, and am planning a third - but for Paul and his churches, it wasn't on their radars. I need to stop writing now (and you probably need to stop reading!) smile but I want to address the issue to you raised regarding what Paul believed about Jesus.

EllieArroway Thu 25-Apr-13 14:47:22

I'm not sure what early scholarship it's anchored in.

We have - Paul
Followed a generation (possibly more) later by the gospels, written over the course of 40 odd years
Then the odd reference (possibly) to Christians at the beginning of the 1st century
Then the apologists get involved (some 200 odd years after the events)

That's it. There's no other source that even so much as mentions Jesus or Christians.

I'm not talking about later pilgrimage traditions or what the Jews were doing - I'm talking about the echoing silence of disinterest in the first 70 years after the death of Jesus.

Yes - and the destruction of the Temple. A big event, mentioned in all the history books. According to the Bible, it was caused by a vengeful God after the death of Jesus. But not ONE of the many historical accounts regarding this actually mentions Jesus in relation to it at all?????

Please don't forget the massive amounts of historical data that we have that passes on a huge amount of information about what other cult followers were up to. Nothing about Jesus? No Christians making their way to see the fabled tomb for themselves? No one interested to see whether the mother of God might still be around? No finding of the disciples, no inscriptions to show what happened where? And no one appears to have contacted Paul to ask him.

No one really cared much, did they? Which is hard to swallow when we consider what this man was supposed to have done. We hear much more about lesser figures.

You're giving me apologetic excuses for the silence rather than evidence that it wasn't there. Which it clearly was.

Oh, and Hi, btw smile

HolofernesesHead Thu 25-Apr-13 15:32:56

Hi Ellie. My writing of earlier is anchored in the scholarship one reads in journals such as Vigilae Christianae, The Journal of Early Christian Studies, New Testament Studies journal and other such journals (as well as books - the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies is very good, and recently published).

Did I misunderstand you? I thought that you were suggesting that the lack of travellers to the places where Jesus lived was significant? Anyway, I found it interesting to ponder the question.

Back later...

EllieArroway Thu 25-Apr-13 16:04:50

I'm not doubting that they are scholarly tomes, Holo - I'm wondering what sources they are referencing.....and how much relevance it has to my point.

This is a debate about the historical evidence. The opinions of people writing 2000 years later isn't actually that relevant unless they are telling us where they get their information.

Outside of the New Testament we have absolutely no information whatsoever about very early Christianity. Zero.

What we DO have is a wealth of historians who were alive at the right time and in the right area & who don't hold back on telling us an awful lot of what was going on - but no mention of any Jesus or Christians. This is significant, I feel.

And, even amongst the literature that Christians were producing for each other, there's no suggestion that they were acting on information provided by Paul or anyone else in order to go and see for themselves the holy sites.

The fact that, even today, we have no real idea where any of the events that happened to Jesus took place strongly suggests that they weren't preserved or referenced as holy places at all. Very odd that.

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